Deal between Barak, Shas party prevents coalition's collapse

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak pasted his splintered coalition back together yesterday, surviving the biggest threat yet to his government and at least temporarily removing the danger that early elections will scuttle any chance of concluding a peace agreement with the Palestinians this year.

Cabinet ministers from the Orthodox Shas party rescinded their resignations about an hour before they were to go into effect yesterday afternoon.


In exchange, Barak exacted a promise that the 17 Shas parliamentarians he relies on for his majority will withdraw their support for a bill to dissolve the government, which was due to be debated next week.

The Shas move was made possible by the resignation a night earlier of its archrival, the secular Meretz party, which has 10 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.


Shas leaders are feuding with Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who as education minister was trying to force Shas to account for its publicly funded, debt-ridden religious school system.

By giving the Shas schools another $6 million, Barak bought time to work toward a possible peace summit with President Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is scheduled to visit Israel next week to try to pave the way for a possible early July summit.

But Shas has declared it will deal with upcoming issues one by one, which means Barak's government will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis as it confronts decisions that are anathema to many Shas voters - such as returning more West Bank land to the Arabs.

"In the peace process, we will deal with each issue on its own merits," said Shas leader Eli Yishai.

The result is what Arieh Caspi of the daily newspaper Ha'aretz called "ad hoc" government, in which Barak must strike a new deal with Shas and four other coalition partners over every major government decision.

"How long can the agreement with Shas last?" Caspi wrote. "A week? A month? Six months?"

Since he formed his unwieldy government nearly a year ago, Barak has calculated that Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is more amenable to land-for-peace concessions than the leaders of other religious parties because Yosef believes they may be necessary to save Jewish lives.


Yet the party's stance is pragmatic, not ideological, and Shas could still desert Barak.

His government now includes 62 of the 120 Knesset members, but he may be able to muster as many as 73 votes in favor of new concessions to the Palestinians. A peace deal would need an absolute majority of 61 votes - and then would be submitted to a nationwide referendum.

In his drive to create a broad consensus, Barak has made some strange bedfellows. Most Israelis who voted for him support political parties that are outside his government, while most of the parties he invited into the government represent people who voted for his hawkish predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinians condemned the Shas pact as a victory for Israel's right wing that will make it harder for Barak to take measures such as dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"The end of the coalition crisis comes completely at the cost of the peace process and the Palestinians," said Ghassan Khatib, who heads the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. "When Barak chooses Shas instead of Meretz, he is choosing peace with the right wing of Israel at the cost of peace with the Palestinians."

In Israel, only Shas leaders appeared to be celebrating the end of the latest round of political bickering, which they did by toasting one another with champagne.


Other Israelis, even among Shas' constituency of lower-income, religiously observant Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, appeared weary of the special-interest logjams that frequently paralyze the government.

Barak's actions disappointed secular Israelis, who support his diplomatic initiatives and had hoped he would break the stranglehold the religious parties have gained on Israeli politics.

"What could you expect from the moment he let Shas into the coalition?" lamented Jerusalem resident Amy Levinson. "It's like dealing with Khomeini's Iran."